China’s Chatbot Industry Is Still Early Stage
In China, chatbots are nowhere near as hyped up as they are in Western countries, where tech giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are actively investing in chatbot technology. For example, Google and Facebook are developing powerful natural language processing (NLP) tools, which are the backbone of chatbots – they’re what enable them to understand human speech and respond accordingly.
In May, Google open sourced SyntaxNet, the company’s NLP engine that can parse text and understand grammar. Facebook has its own natural language tool called DeepText, which helps chatbots mimic human speech by learning from Facebook content. China’s tech giants, on the otherhand, have been pretty quiet when it comes to chatbots, though related fields, such as artificial intelligence and natural language processing, are obviously areas of interest, especially for Baidu.
Besides Rikai Labs, there are a few other WeChat chatbot accounts. There’s Microsoft’s Xiaobing (小冰), a flirtatious female bot that users can chat or play games with (she challenged me to a Chinese idiom competition. I lost). Another chatbot WeChat account is Turing Robot (图灵机器人), whose conversational abilities appear to be less mature than those of Xiaobing.
Still, when it comes to more commercial or service-oriented WeChat accounts, chatbots are rarely implemented, says Mr. Collier.
“WeChat is just an amazingly underused platform,” he told TechNode. ” [In] Slack, everyday people are releasing cool new applications that really use the platform. [In] WeChat, people are just shoving marketing material on webpages.”
WeChat’s Developer API supports many functions that are useful for chatbots, such retrieving text-to-speech output, says Mr. Collier. However, most WeChat applications stick to HTML5 pages and rarely take advantage of WeChat’s built-in chatbot potential. In addition, though other chat platforms, such as Line and Facebook Messenger, have the ability to utilize chatbots, WeChat is the only one that can really monetize it as a business, due to its micropayments system WeChat Wallet.
Of course, chatbots still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to open-ended and less structured chat dialogue. “We’re trying to take a fairly curated approach…so it’s not just random chat,” says Mr. Collier. “Over time, we’ll have to see how scalable we’re able to [teach] people.”
“We’ll probably need a bot to watch the teacherbot or something like that, so we don’t get a Microsoft Tay kind of situation,” he adds.
The Shanghai-based startup will face stiff competition from all directions, as China’s English education market is highly lucrative and fiercely competitive. The industry includes large, traditional education companies, such as Education First and Wall Street English, as well as startups, such as Liulishuo (流利说) and 51talk.
Currently, Rikai Labs’ service is free – students can start lessons by following the company’s WeChat account – but doesn’t have that much content. According to Mr. Collier, the company plans to launch another version in two months, and will charge students 20 RMB (about $3 USD) per lesson in future versions.